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|Stylistic origins||Country and western (especially countrypolitan), pop music, folk rock|
|Cultural origins||1960s in Nashville, Tennessee|
|Typical instruments||Vocals, guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel guitar or dobro—occasional use of other instruments such as keyboard/organ|
|Nashville sound • Country rock • Outlaw country • Southern soul|
Country pop is a subgenre of country music that developed as a result of the country genre's desire to reach a larger, mainstream audience. By producing country songs that employed many styles and sounds found in pop music, the country music industry was effective in gaining new listeners without alienating its traditional country audience. It is a continuation of similar efforts that began in the late-1950s originally known as Nashville sound and later on Countrypolitan. By the mid-1970s, many country artists were transitioning to the pop-country sound which led to some records charting high on mainstream top 40 as well as country Billboard charts.
Beginnings: Nashville sound
The joining of country and pop began in the 1950s when studio executives Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley wanted to create a new kind of music for the young adult crowd after "rockabilly stole away much of country music's youth audience". According to Bill Ivey, this innovative genre originated in Nashville, Tennessee and thus became known as the Nashville Sound. He believes that the "Nashville Sound often produced records that sounded more pop than country", after the removal of the fiddle and banjo. Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, and Eddy Arnold were among the most popular artists during this time. This was intended to have country singers gain more success in pop music and sell more records. The first male artists to come out of this new genre were Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold, who both grew to have widespread acceptance among both country and pop music listeners. Both Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold had major influence on their RCA labelmate Elvis Presley, apparent not only in secular songs, but even more so in country gospel songs. The first female country singer to emerge from this new genre was Patsy Cline in the early 1960s. The example she created was followed by other female country artists, such as Lynn Anderson, Crystal Gayle and Shania Twain, who gained prominence in later years. Even though Cline also gained widespread acceptance from country and pop audiences alike, the Nashville Sound was not well received by country purists, and faced competition, first from the Bakersfield Sound and later the outlaw movement on that front; on the pop side, the format was overshadowed by the British Invasion, which was taking place during the same time that Cline and Reeves, two of the biggest names associated with the Nashville sound, died in separate airplane crashes.
The Nashville sound eventually evolved into countrypolitan during the late 1960s and 1970s and had varying levels of success, with several artists recording in the style, many of whom were otherwise country purists or outlaws: Ray Price ("For the Good Times"), Charley Pride ("Kiss an Angel Good Morning"), Charlie Rich (three such hits), Jessi Colter ("I'm Not Lisa"), Crystal Gayle ("Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue") and Kris Kristofferson all charted pop-influenced country hits during the 1970s.
Late 1970s and 1980s
Country pop found its first widespread acceptance during the 1970s. It started with pop music singers, like Glen Campbell, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and Anne Murray, began having hits on the country charts. Songs like Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy" were among one of the biggest crossover hits in country music history. These pop-oriented singers thought that they could gain higher record sales and a larger audience if they crossed over into the country world. Among one of the most unappreciated artists who did this was Olivia Newton-John in 1974, who emerged from Australia in the mid-70s, hoping to make it big in the United States. When her single "Let Me Be There" became a big pop-country crossover hit in 1974, it became quite controversial, especially after Newton-John won a Grammy award for "Best Female Country Vocal Performance" for the song, and also won the CMA's most coveted award for females, "Female Vocalist of the Year" (beating out established Nashville artists Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker, as well as Canadian transplant Anne Murray).
A group of artists, troubled by this trend, formed the Association of Country Entertainers in 1974. The debate raged into 1975, and reached its apex at that year's Country Music Association Awards when reigning Entertainer of the Year Charlie Rich (who himself had a series of crossover hits) presented the award to his successor, John Denver. As he read Denver's name, Rich set fire to the envelope with a cigarette lighter. The action was taken in some quarters as a protest against the increasing pop style in country music (some, including Rich himself, cited medication instead as reason for his behavior). However, the ACE would not last all that long.
In 1977 Kenny Rogers, former frontman of the rock band The First Edition, burst onto the country charts with "Lucille" and would go on to become the most successful of the country pop performers, topping charts all over the world and taking the genre to the zenith internationally, selling more than 130 million records. After "Lucille", Rogers had a string of songs that did well on both the country and pop charts around the world, including "Daytime Friends", "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County", all of which were produced by Larry Butler. Rogers would go on to push the boundaries of pop influence in country music, having records produced by the likes of The Bee Gees, Lionel Richie, David Foster and George Martin, all of which did well in both the pop and country markets. In 1979 Barbara Mandrell had her highest crossover hit with her #1 Song "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" It charted #31 on the Billboard Top 40. Several of her other hits charted well on the Adult Contemporary charts and the Bubbling under 100 Charts. Mandrell also did Countrypolitan style music on her "Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters" Show. She had R & B artists, Pop Artists and Country Artists featured every week. It was the last successful musical variety show on TV. (Running from 1980–1982 – Mandrell had to quit the show because of health reasons.) She is also known for her "Blue-Eyed Soul" sound. She was given the nickname The Princess of Steel, for her ability at the steel guitar.She was one of Country Music's most successful crossover artists during the 1970s and '80s. Like many of her contemporaries at the time, she sang crossover Country material, that either was well-liked or highly criticized. Her biggest hits include "Sleeping Single In a Double Bed", "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right", "Years", and "Crackers". Some traditional Country Artists accused Mandrell of being to glitzy, too "Hollywood" with her pop-influenced sound.
Dolly Parton, who had already achieved considerable success as a mainstream country artist, wanted to expand her audience and go in new directions, so she decided to make a change in 1977, crossing over into the pop music world with No. 1 country and No. 3 pop hit that year called "Here You Come Again". She followed it up with a number of additional crossover pop hits, including "Two Doors Down" and "Heartbreaker" (both 1978), "Baby I'm Burning" (1979), "Starting Over Again" (1980), and "9 to 5", which topped both the country and pop singles charts in early 1981. (Ironically, despite her being one of the most successful practitioners of country pop crossover during the late 1970s and 1980s, Parton, because of her upbringing and mountain roots, is regarded by most critics as one of country's most authentic performers.)
Country pop reached an early peak immediately following the movie Urban Cowboy in the early 1980s. Some older artists from the 1960s and 1970s converted their sound to country pop or 'countrypolitan', such as Parton, Willie Nelson and Dottie West. Dottie West, who had been around since the '60s, completely changed her image into a more sexy and risky profile in the early '80s, following a series of hit duets with Kenny Rogers. (Rogers also had an enormous duet hit with Parton, the Bee Gees-penned "Islands in the Stream", which topped the country and pop singles charts in late 1983.) After the success with Rogers, West wanted to remain on top of her game, so in order to keep up with current country music, she continued to record more pop-sounding material. Because of this, Dottie West achieved her biggest success as a country singer during this time, acquiring her first No. 1 hit as a solo artist thanks to her music in 1980 titled "A Lesson in Leaving".
Alabama, Eddie Rabbitt and Ronnie Milsap also began experiencing crossover success during the early 1980s. Four of Alabama's most successful songs of the early 1980s—"Feels So Right", "Love in the First Degree", Take Me Down" and "The Closer You Get" (the last two of which were covers of songs by then-pop band Exile)—all reached the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, while four of Ronnie Milsap's No. 1 songs between 1980–1982 reached the Hot 100s Top 20, the most successful of which was the No. 5 hit "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me". Rabbitt had three Top 5 pop songs in 1980–1981, and "I Love a Rainy Night" reached No. 1 on both the Hot 100 and Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. Former pop acts, such as Exile, Merrill Osmond (both solo and with his fellow Osmond Brothers), Bill Medley (formerly of The Righteous Brothers), Tom Jones and Dan Seals began targeting their music at the country market in the early 1980s with a country-pop sound.
By the mid-80s, however, fans of more traditional country music were growing restless. For the next several years, country radio was dominated by neotraditional artists, although some country pop artists continued to have hits, most notably Alabama, Parton, Mandrell, Rabbitt and Milsap.
Country pop enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, primarily because of the beginning proliferation of country music to the FM radio dial, which in turn was aided by the increase of FCC licenses for suburban and rural FM stations in the late 1980s and an increase in talk radio on the AM dial. The commercial boom in the industry during this time was also attributable to the rise of talented artists who coincided with the implementation of new marketing strategies that were meant to attract a larger fan base; this further pushed the genre into a pop musical style with an emerging new image. Garth Brooks rose to fame during the 1990s with a string of several extremely successful albums and songs. Shania Twain would rival this success with her three albums The Woman in Me, Come On Over and Up!. In the last few years, country singer LeAnn Rimes has proved her ability to sing country pop songs such as the record-setting "How Do I Live", which spent 69 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, the second longest single in the record history. This achievement came in spite of the fact that a nearly identical version of the same song by Trisha Yearwood was released at the same time and was also a hit. Rimes also had a hit with the pop songs "Can't Fight the Moonlight" and "I Need You", the latter of which required a remix to be suitable for country radio.
Incorporating elements of pop into country music became extremely popular by the late 90s thus producing many crossover hits and artists, especially on the adult contemporary charts. Country love songs also became more popular with songs like "To Make You Feel My Love", "Cowboy Take Me Away", "I Love You", "Breathe", "It's Your Love", "Just to See You Smile", "This Kiss", "You're Still the One", "From This Moment On", "You've Got a Way", "Valentine", etc.
In the 1990s many country artists experienced huge crossover success. In addition to Brooks, Twain, McBride, and Rimes, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Jo Dee Messina, Martina McBride, Lonestar, Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Wynonna Judd all had songs cross over to Top 40 and/or Adult Contemporary radio, sometimes with remixes eliminating steel guitars and other "country" elements to be more suitable for pop radio. Brooks, Reba McEntire and other artists also maintained high profiles on the album charts despite having less radio crossover success.
2000s and 2010s
The early 2000s also saw continued success of these artists. Lee Ann Womack scored a big hit with "I Hope You Dance". The Dixie Chicks had continued success with a less mainstream country-pop sound when they released their Bluegrass-influenced album Home in 2002. However, by the mid-2000s there were fewer country acts having crossover success. With her exposure on TV's American Idol, Carrie Underwood became a crossover success in 2006 and 2007 though, with her hit single "Before He Cheats", which was notable for becoming a success on mainstream pop radio without a more "pop-friendly" remix. Underwood has had additional, but more spotty, success on pop radio since. Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts have also had crossover success in the late 2000s.
In the 2010s, Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum have achieved success recently, including winning numerous Grammy Awards. Taylor Swift's 2010-release album Speak Now and 2012's Red had become top charters in multiple charts, including the Top Country Albums and Billboard 200; both of those album sold 1 million copies in their debut week sales, opening 1.0 million for Speak Now and 1.2 million for Red. On Red, Swift also incorporated some elements of dance sounds such as dubstep into her music and worked with pop writers/producers Max Martin and Shellback on several tracks, including the hits "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", "I Knew You Were Trouble", and "22", which were more favored by pop radio over country radio; by the time of her subsequent album 1989, Swift had abandoned all attachment to country music and aimed her music exclusively at the pop market. Uncle Kracker also achieved success when his number 3 peaking adult contemporary hit "Smile" also became a number 6 country hit. Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson hit number 3 on adult contemporary, 9 on adult pop and 1 on country charts with the song "Don't You Wanna Stay". Other recent records to hit on both the pop and country charts have included Lady Antebellum's "Just A Kiss", The Band Perry's "If I Die Young", Kelly Clarkson's "Mr. Know It All", Hunter Hayes' "Wanted", and Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise".
A handful of country pop songs also have crossed over to Contemporary Christian radio, notably Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel", "So Small", and "Something in the Water", as well as Rascal Flatts' "Changed".
- Ivey, B: "The Nashville Sound". The Encyclopedia of Country Music, pages 371–372
- Neal, Jocelyn R. "Country music". Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 Sep 2014.
- "Taylor Swift says ‘Bye’ to country, hello to urban pop with ‘1989’". www.buffaloNews.com.